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Understanding propaganda in advertising

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I’ve always been fascinated with the power of propaganda. Last week marked the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War and, of the many impacts it had on the world, it’s effect on advertising is the one I encounter every day.

Whereas the First World War highlighted the importance of visual design and the skills of the graphic designer, the Second World War was when public awareness of propaganda became more sophisticated. People remembered the horrors of the First World War and were reluctant to repeat it.

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Unfortunately, efforts to advertise the war had also advanced, particularly with the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. They used social engineering, particularly the concept of patriotism, to mobilise a public looking for an ideal to follow.

For the Allies, we’d seen a huge development in advertisers who were applying theories from behavioural psychology and social science to their campaigns. These techniques quickly found their way into war propaganda.

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The aims of propaganda are to bring a message across to a large group of people with the intention to change or manipulate their views. Ever since advertising began to appear, moralists and critics have complained that it distorted people’s natural desires, misinformed them about the products they needed and played on their emotions.

Fast forward to 80 years later, the lessons learnt from wartime propaganda fed into the golden age of advertising in the 50s and then into marketing as it is now.

Here’s some of the clearest examples of that in action: 

Bandwagon propaganda

As human beings, we have an innate desire to fit in. That’s the exact ‘follow the herd’ mentality that advertisers thrive on. Jumping on the bandwagon is exploited now, just as it was during the war. Cosmetic companies do this all the time by mentioning that a product is 'loved' by a particular group.

Card stacking propaganda

Card stacking is a propaganda technique that seeks to manipulate audience perception of an issue by emphasising one side and diminishing the other. This technique uses the deliberate omission of certain facts to fool the target audience. For instance, some companies may conceal “hidden charges” and only talk about the benefits of the product.

Testimonial propaganda

A tried and tested method during wartime to encourage the general public to side with a point of view. Companies such as Coca-Cola or Nike use big names to endorse their products, just as the Allies used celebrities to encourage the general public to buy war bonds.

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